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Of Québec Cinema and Jacob Tierney

July 15, 2010

Moviemaker and actor Jacob Tierney recently accused Quebec artists of being self-centered artists, and of to all practical purposes excluding recent immigrants and the anglophone community from Quebec moviemaking. The reaction to that has been predictably intense.

Both sides have good points. Both sides have bad points. On the whole, Tierney’s point would be much better made if he focused on the lack of recent immigrants (a serious problem with how the growingly integrated immigrant communities still don’t make the silverscreen)  than on the lack of anglophones,  where I think Tierney is fundamentally missing the boat about the nature of Québec, and indeed North American, cinema as a whole.

The first point to be made with regard to Québec cinema is this: Canada as a whole is very deep into the shadow of Hollywood.  In 2008, Canadian films (Quebec and otherwise) occupied 3% of the total Canadian box-office.

That 3% is misleading, too, because two-thirds of it is Quebecers going to see Quebec movies. The actual market share of English-Canadian movies in Canada is 1% (with even high-grossing Canadian movies making only a fraction of what Hollywood blockbusters make – Canadian-made Passchendaele made 4.4 millions in English Canada in 2008; In 2009 Transformers 2 made 34.4).  At the Quebec box office, the actual market share of Québec movies ranges from 9% to 15% depending on the year, with Quebec movies finishing the year #1 at the provincial box office twice in the past five years (2006, 2009) or taking three of the top-5 spots in 2005 despite competing with major blockbusters like Da Vinci Code and Dead Man’s Chest (2006), Revenge of the Sith and Goblet of Fire (2005) or Twilight and Half-Blood Prince (2009).

That’s not to say that Canada doesn’t have great filmmakers and actors and that Canadians don’t know how to make popular films (there’s this guy, you may have heard of him, James Cameron? highest grossing second highest grossing Both of the two highest grossing movies of all time?). They most certainly do – it’s just they do it in Hollywood.

And that is what I’m getting to. Geographic borders don’t exist in North American cinema. Everything north of the Rio Grande is Hollywood’s “domestic market”, as much for filmmaking as for releasing the films. People who want to make blockbusters, in North America, go make them in Hollywood. People who want to view blockbusters, in North America, watch Hollywood fares.  Cities who want to draw in blockbuster filming try to draw in Hollywood. Outside Hollywood, you have indie filmmakers, and niche industries, which often overlap. Niche industries exists because there are realities that Hollywood movies tend not to depict.

The Québec film industry is one of those niche industries – it exists because the francophone reality doesn’t really have a place in Hollywood (for fairly legitimate reasons – North America, Mexico aside, is after all by and large an anglophone continent), either in the actual movie, or among the movie crews. It’s a niche that’s all about the francophone reality.

That’s not to say that authors who want to talk about Quebec anglophones reality shouldn’t try to make movies about Quebec’s anglophones. If they want to, why not? Tierney himself (to his credit), did, and I applaud him for doing so. In the same vein, I certainly have no problem with such films receiving funds from the government of Quebec, like any other Quebec-made film can (Tierney, as far as I know, did get Quebec money).

But attacking Francophone movie-makers because they chose making movies about francophones instead of anglophones is just plain…wrong-headed?

Which is a shame, because when it comes to the issues of the place given to immigrants in Quebec movies – immigrants who, more and more, become part of the Francophone reality of Quebec – Tierney is very, very, very much right – Quebec movies are, in fact,  whiter than Francophone Quebec reality (largely because Quebec movies tend toward the historical, whereas non-white immigration to Quebec is fairly recent, but still) – but that gets lost in the “Anglophone” part of his message.


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